Update (8:00am ET): As it travels over the Florida Panhandle, Irma has been downgraded to a tropical storm. Yet it continues to produce some wind gusts that are near hurricane force.
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After hammering the Florida Keys, Miami, Naples and a large swath of the southernmost part of the state – leaving some 5 million Florida homes and businesses without electricity – the still-formidable Hurricane Irma weakened to a category one storm as it traveled over the Tampa Bay area.
According to NBC, no deaths were confirmed Sunday after the storm twice made landfall in Florida, first in Cudjoe Key, then again on Marco Island just southwest of the city of Naples. Florida's largest utility – Florida Power & Light Co. - reported that the storm had knocked out power to nearly three-quarters of its customers. All told, FP&L estimates that some 10 million Floridians will be effected by the power outages – a full 50% of the state's population.
In fact, officials from the utility say the damage in the southwestern part of the state is so extensive, it could take weeks to fully repair, after Irma shredded powerlines, flooded streets and destroyed homes, according to ABC. One officials said it could be the costliest and most extensive infrastructure-rebuilding effort in US history.
"What we think we'll see on the west coast is a wholesale rebuild of our electric grid," Robert Gould, Florida Power & Light's vice president and chief communications officer, told ABC News. "That will take weeks."
"This thing is a monster," he added.
FPL had requisitioned 17,000 restoration workers from about 30 states in preparation for the storm. But even with an army of workers, the recovery effort will be time-consuming and incredibly costly.
"Gould estimated that FPL positioned "17,000 restoration workers from about 30 states" in anticipation of repair efforts before the storm arrived, but said that flooding from storm surges and traffic congestion as residents return home this week would delay the project.
"This is going to be a very, very lengthy restoration, arguably the most lengthy restoration and most complex in U.S. history," he said, asking that customers be patient.
On the east coast of the state, which avoided a direct hit from the eye of the storm, Gould expects repairs to last "probably a week or more."
Meanwhile, as of 5 am ET Monday, Irma had sustained winds of 75 mph as it continued to move inland. It was recently traveling about 60 mph north of Tampa, with what's left of the storm ultimately headed for Georgia and Alabama. In an incredibly fortunate development, Tampa appears to have been largely spared by the storm. Some trees, power lines and signs were down but there was no widespread damage and no signs of flooding downtown – this after city officials worried that Tampa could experience its own "Katrina moment" due to the city's woefully inadequate storm infrastructure.
Of course, the damage from the 400-mile-wide storm isn't over yet. A storm surge warning remains in effect for some parts of the state, including Tampa Bay, though the warnings were ended for parts of south Florida. As we noted yesterday, the storm surge is a wall of water from the ocean as well as nearby lakes, bays, estuaries and wetlands created by a storm's hurricane force winds. It can form suddenly – like it did in Naples on Sunday when the NHC reported that floodwaters climbed seven feet in just 90 minutes.